It’s a paradox of 21st-century Hollywood that the genre we call action gets duller every year. Superheroes, infinite franchising, virtual production, rapidly improving VFX technology—it all adds up to a glut of formulaic shows and movies, bloated with computer-generated battle scenes and fake explosions that increasingly crowd out not just character development, but also basic plot coherence. These days, any action offering that diverges from this norm is worthy of attention. But Netflix’s Who Is Erin Carter? doesn’t just harken back to the genre’s analog past. It also tells the human story of a woman’s quest to give her daughter the stability she never had.
The central mystery of the seven-part series, which arrives on Aug. 24, is right there in the title. One morning, Erin Carter (Evin Ahmad) awakens her little girl, Harper (Indica Watson), at the crack of dawn to catch a boat out of Folkestone Harbor in southeast England. Five years later, they’re living in a picturesque suburb of Barcelona, where Erin is a substitute teacher married to a gentle nurse, Jordi (Sean Teale). Now a pugnacious preteen, Harper gets kicked out of the school musical for whaling on a classmate. “We don’t solve our problems with violence,” Erin tells her. But the admonishment is somewhat undermined by the advice she gives the girl earlier in the same scene: “FYI, when you throw a punch, you need to keep your fist tight.”
Erin’s knowledge of hand-to-hand combat isn’t just theoretical. She and Harper soon find themselves caught in a supermarket robbery. As the child hides, her mother smashes a glass bottle in the face of a masked gunman, stabs him with a baking tool, and then fires the criminal’s weapon right into his chest. “It’s you,” he rasps, on the verge of bleeding out. He’s not the only person from Erin’s past who recognizes her, once the petite teacher’s heroism makes headlines. Suddenly, the normal life she’s worked so hard to build for Harper is at risk of crumbling.
Erin Carter possesses all the elements of an addictive, old-school action drama. A collaboration between Britain’s Left Bank Pictures, best known for The Crown, and Spain’s Palma Pictures, the show’s production values are high without feeling ostentatious. There’s a refreshing minimalism to the fight scenes, which make clever use of the suburban setting. Erin fends off enemies in an empty classroom, a beachfront mansion, a well-appointed kitchen—where a cast-iron frying pan home cooks would covet makes an ideal improvised bullet shield. Individual episodes, like the short season as a whole, are efficiently scripted and smartly paced; writer, executive producer, and showrunner Jack Lothian knows just when to stop teasing and delve into Erin’s backstory. And while there’s genuine pathos in that history, Lothian balances it out with humor. Erin’s feud with the smug queen bee of her neighborhood, Penelope (Charlotte Vega), delivers the soapy archness of Big Little Lies and Desperate Housewives.
The show occasionally gets too silly for its own good. While the characters are finely crafted—a wonderfully sympathetic antagonist emerges a few episodes into the season—the plot is held together by a few coincidences that strain believability. Erin’s identity, background, intentions, and, yes, her literal name are called into question so often, and in such conspicuous ways, that I started to wonder whether Lothian was worried viewers would forget the title Who Is Erin Carter? No, really, the show demands at least three times per episode, who is this woman?
Thankfully, Ahmad ensures that viewers keep discovering new facets of this fascinating character. A familiar face on Netflix thanks to central roles in Danish sci-fi thriller The Rain and Swedish noir Snabba Cash, the Swedish-Kurdish actor is mesmerizing as an antihero whose experiences make her ideally suited for crime, but who wants to help troubled kids avoid the traps that still ensnare her. In a performance that complements Lothian’s subtle treatment of Erin’s gender, which flips the script on the familiar narrative of a once-violent man settling down and seeking redemption, Ahmad avoids badass action-girl tropes by drawing out the character’s sadness and fallibility. Who is Erin Carter? A haunted woman whose dreams and regrets make her a bracing outlier within a genre dominated by interchangeable superheroes and superspies.
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